Fix national policy first

Rob Handfield-Jones March 31, 2010

“This year marks a break in our approach to road safety,” thundered Transport Minister, S’bu Ndebele, at the launch of this year’s Easter road safety campaign. “It shall no longer be just government’s responsibility to provide safety on our roads.”

Say what? The last time government provided anything even approximating safety on our roads was in 1995. Since then, all they have done is systematically destroy every important road safety structure and convert those that couldn’t be removed into cash cows. These are the reasons road safety has crashed. And now, instead of rectifying those problems, Ndebele is chasing another wild goose.

Summit

He was quoted as saying that “…a summit resolved to form Community Road Safety Councils at local and district levels of all municipalities…”. That’s nonsense, and he should be embarrassed for putting it into the public domain as fact. The real story is that Ndebele had already decided, well in advanced of the so-called “Road Safety Summit” in February that he was going to form these community road safety councils. These councils will allegedly “…work closely with road traffic authorities within each area…” and “…identify local road safety education issues and bring them to the attention of the relevant bodies and authorities….” Ndebele and his spokespeople have been talking about the councils idea since December 2009 and he expanded upon it in detail in a speech he gave in January, a month before the “summit”.

In other words, Ndebele wasted tens of thousands of taxpayer Rands holding a Road Safety Summit so he could use the attendees as proxies to rubber-stamp a decision he had already taken. And since Ndebele is definitely not a road safety expert (he got the 1994 death toll far wrong in his speech at the summit), his “solution” is anecdote and opinion, rather than science.

Bluntly, the idea is utterly stupid and will see us fiddling on community level when the cornerstone national road safety issues have not yet been addressed. These issues are enforcement, vehicle fitness, driver impairment and licensing. Fix those four problems and we will cut road deaths by half to two-thirds.

This has been pointed out to Ndebele and previous transport ministers in numerous forums over the years, but has been ignored completely. What makes it so annoying is that there is ample scientific evidence, by way of South Africa’s road safety stats, that those four problems are the biggest ones we have. Ironically, they are also the cheapest problems to fix.

Community road safety issues, on the contrary, are among the most complex, time-consuming and expensive problems to address, and there is no research which demonstrates a case for them to be prioritised ahead of the big picture issues in South Africa. For example, every community is undoubtedly going to draw up a list of dangerous intersections, pedestrian high-risk zones and so-on, and then present them, via these councils, to the Department of Transport for action. If someone at the DoT had sat down for a moment and considered what it would cost to provide the thousands of traffic calming zones this country needs, or build the hundreds of pedestrian bridges required, or string fences along stretches where crashes involving animals are common, they would have abandoned the ‘community councils’ idea in a cold sweat.

Realistic

A more realistic, sustainable and cost-effective approach than trying to engineer every last hamlet and its inhabitants to be crash-proof is to ensure, by way of proper licensing, good enforcement and roadworthy vehicles, that drivers create the least risk possible. This is a handy solution because it works anywhere a driver goes. A speed bump or pedestrian bridge only works in one place.

Community road safety initiatives are a route of last resort for road safety. They are what you do if you’re a Britain or a USA or a New Zealand. They are the things you attack when you’ve got licensing, enforcement, driver impairment and roadworthiness under such good control that the law of diminishing returns forces you to look for more bang for your road safety buck. South Africa is nowhere near this stage.

Until Ndebele corrects the flaws in national policy, he can (and probably will) blow billions on community initiatives and will get zip in return. The continued carnage will, of course, be blamed on the road user. It’s baffling that the DoT is simply incapable of formulating policy based on sound evidence rather than pie-in-the-sky mush, and I wonder how much longer Ndebele is going to ignore the raft of documented facts on road safety in our country.

About Rob Handfield-Jones, the author

Rob's motto is "...cars, cars, cars..." and he's been a leading innovator in the field of driving skills training since 1989. Away from the serious stuff, Rob enjoys working on cars, writing about them and playing with them - he has numerous TV stunt-driving credits, many wins and lap records in circuit racing, and has also tried his hand at special stage rallying. He writes regularly on road safety issues for several publications and is a well-known radio commentator via his "On the road" road safety slot on Classic FM 102.7.